I’m going to be honest here. I have never driven outside of the United States. The idea of having to navigate foreign signs, rules, or even a manual car immediately causes me to break out in a cold sweat. Add a foreign language or driving on the wrong left side of the road, and it’s an accident waiting to happen.
With that lively introduction, it’s pretty obvious why I don’t take (m)any road trips abroad. I spend enough time in my car in Los Angeles and would rather let someone else take the wheel while I’m traveling.
After spending nearly 6 months in Ireland a few years go, I came to realize that trying to see the country by bus or train was both expensive and inefficient. Lots of buses aren’t direct (unless you’re going from one major city to the other), and the tickets aren’t exactly budget friendly…especially if there are more than a couple of people involved in the trip. The train was simply not an option on my student budget. This is one of the few countries where a road trip isn’t just a friendly suggestion – it’s a downright necessity. Luckily, Ireland is beautiful and on the smaller side, so a road trip here is an enjoyable experience.
This is the itinerary for the perfect Ireland road trip!
2 Days / 2 Nights
The DL: So you’ve arrived in Ireland, and chances are you’ve flown into Dublin…which is perfect because this is where you should start your road trip. I recommend spending two days exploring Dublin before (affiliate link) renting your car. It’s really easy (not to mention cost-efficient!) to get around the city on foot or on the metro, so wait to get your wheels until you’re about to leave the city.
What to see: Christ Church Cathedral, the Guinness Storehouse or the Jameson Distillery, the Leprechaun Museum*, Kilmainham Gaol Prison, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College Library, and The National Gallery*. Don’t forget to check out the Temple Bar area and Copper Face Jack’s, Dublin’s most loved / hated nightclub.
*the Leprechaun museum is small but it’s a fun place for photos. You can easily skip it. If you don’t like museums, then skip the National Gallery.
Dublin -> Belfast
The DL: It will take you around 2 hours to get to Belfast straight from Dublin on the freeway. This is what my friends and I opted to do. On the way, I suggest stopping at Newgrange, Europe’s largest burial chamber. We missed it in our eagerness to get to Belfast, but I’m including it in here because this is the perfect road trip after all! You’ll likely arrive in Belfast in the afternoon. Plan on spending 2 nights here, assuming you take around half a day to arrive in Belfast.
1.5 days / 2 nights
What to see: Donegall Square, Crown Liquor Saloon, the Botanical Gardens, City Hall, the Titanic Belfast Museum, Hillsborough Castle and the Belfast Political Murals.
Belfast -> Derry
The DL: This is where the road trip starts to get even more gorgeous. Wake up early and grab breakfast then make your way to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. On the way, stop and pick up picnic items and have a picnic at one of the many benches lining the coastal route. The somewhat rickety bridge isn’t for the faint of heart or those who are scared of heights, but cross the 261-year-old bridge and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the North Coast and some spectacular photos to boot.
Next, do the short drive over to Giant’s Causeway, where you’ll find amazing hexagonal rock column formations caused by an ancient volcano eruption. It’s mind-blowing to see. After a couple of hours here, complete the drive to Derry, where you should arrive by late afternoon.
1 day / 1 night
What to see: The Free Derry Corner Murals, the People’s Gallery Murals, the Peace Bridge, and the Bogside neighborhood.
Derry -> Galway
The DL: The road from Derry to Galway is long – around 4 hours – so I recommend waking up early to see the various murals of Derry. If you make good time, you can get to Galway by the late evening, leaving you enough time to grab dinner and maybe even check out some of the pubs (the Quays is my favorite!).
1.5 days / 2 nights
What to see: Salthill Prom, Live music at Tig Cóilií, the Quay’s, or Crane Bar, Eyre Square, the Spanish Arch, Salmon Weir Bridge, Shop Street, and the Galway Cathedral.
*If you can spare an extra day and night, I highly recommend a day trip (via ferry) to the Aran Islands, where you’ll find the Irish-speaking community, rolling hills, and soft Aran wool.
Galway -> Killarney
The DL: After spending two nights in Galway, get up early and drive to the Cliffs of Moher – Ireland’s most photographed landmark. You can take a walk on the trails here, and even grab lunch nearby. On your way to the Cliffs, you’ll pass through quaint small towns, including Lisdoonvarna, home to the famous Matchmaker Bar. Spend the rest of the afternoon driving to Killarney.
2 days/ 3 nights
What to see: St. Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney National Park, Gap of Dunloe, and Dingle (day trip).
*If you want to do the famous scenic Ring of Kerry drive, add 1-2 days to the itinerary.
Killarney -> Cork
The DL: This drive is only an hour and a half or so. Once you arrive in Cork, spend the afternoon at the Blarney Castle, exploring the grounds, castle, and of course, kissing the stone!
2 days / 2 nights
What to see: Blarney Castle and stone, Fota Wildlife Park, Patrick Street, Cork City Gaol, English Market, and Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral.
Waterford and Kilkenny*
*I have to admit – I never made it to either of these places, but people seem to love them. Waterford has the Treasures Exhibition and the Waterford Crystal factory. Kilkenny is home to several churches and abbeys, as well as the Smithwick’s experience. If you take this route, tack an extra two days onto your itinerary.
Cork -> Dublin
If you drive directly from Cork, you can get to Dublin in around 3 hours. Take a detour on the way and explore the Rock of Cashel before driving back to the city and parting ways with your trusted steed car. Fly home (or not!) the next day.
I know this itinerary is a bit long, but it covers the full gamut of Ireland’s highlights. Since I was based in Galway during my study abroad, my friends and I only did the Dublin to Galway part of the itinerary and took separate trips to the other cities. But if you find yourself with a couple of weeks (or more!) in Ireland, then a road trip is the best way to go!
P.S. If you’re ready to pull the trigger, be sure to check out (affiliate link) Auto Europe for the best deal on renting a car in Europe!
What do you think? Did this road trip cover Ireland’s highlights or did I miss a crucial landmark? Let me know in the comments below!